Mitchell Thornton, Eric C. Larson


Detecting and suppressing malicious attacks continues to challenge designers and users of embedded and edge processing systems. Embedded systems and IoT devices are becoming more prevalent and they are evolving to accommodate the increased complexity requirements of edge computing by incorporating increasing levels of advanced security, energy efficiency, connectivity, performance, and increased computational power to support, for example, machine learning intelligence. These capabilities can be used in a collaborative way to provide a means for detecting a family of side channel malware attacks based upon the exploitation of timing side channels arising from cache and branch prediction circuitry. The SPECTRE exploit serves as the exemplary attack based on data cache timing side channels; however, many variants of this attack have emerged and continue to emerge. Due to the increasing proliferation of this class of devices and the continuing emergence of new variants of timing side channel attacks, there is motivation to develop a malware detection approach that is suitable for embedded and edge processing-based systems that requires minimal computational resources, is robust under varying load conditions, and that is capable of detecting any of a number of different variants of this attack, including zero-day versions. The detection approach is demonstrated to be applicable to variants of the classic SPECTRE attack including the micro-ops cache attack that exploits X86 architectures. The method monitors concurrent processes running on a Linux-based system operating in an edge-computing device to detect if one or more of the processes implements a timing-based side channel attack . Furthermore, the malware detection approach is designed to be lightweight in the sense that it requires minimal computing resources and offers rapid detection times since it uses existing on-chip hardware, pre-programmed event or performance counters, as a data source combined with a simple but effective SVM to detect variants of malicious exploits that may be present within a standard application process. Upon detection of a malicious process, the edge device could automatically suspend or kill the detected and offending process. A feature selection technique is used to select the most appropriate CPU events that indicate the presence of the targeted malware family and to improve performance results and system efficiency. Analysis results are included that evaluated a number of different detection approaches to justify the selection of an SVM due to the tradeoff of accuracy versus computational resource requirements. This approach is demonstrated through implementations on both ARM and X86 instruction set architectures and provide experimental results regarding its accuracy and performance. Detection performance is characterized by a number of metrics including ROC curves. Experimental results assess the robustness of the malware detection approach. The detection of one variant of the cache timing attack is evaluated when the SVM is trained using a different variant. The detection accuracy over a variety of different and varying load conditions is evaluated. Finally, an evaluation of robustness is evaluated by injecting noise into the event counter data at increasing levels until significant detection failures are observed.

Degree Date

Spring 5-13-2023

Document Type


Degree Name



Computer Science and Engineering


Mitchell Thornton

Second Advisor

Eric Larson

Third Advisor

Frank Coyle

Fourth Advisor

Suku Nair

Fifth Advisor

Ted Manikas

Subject Area

Computer Science

Number of Pages




Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License